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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie


 Travel Diary : The indigenous land of Bolivia

Bolivia is surely the poorest country in South America. It seems to be also the less developed. Crossing this country would probably be an adventure.
I found it an interesting challenge to go there to try to understand a little bit more about the situation.  Indeed, many red pages of the history of the humanity have been written there. Potosi is the perfect example
The indigenous culture can be find there much more than in the other countries of south America. The genocide made by the conquistadors seems to have been not as far as in other countries as Argentina or Colombia.
Almost three quarters of the population come from a Quechua or an Aymara heritage.
Bolivia would probably be a unique country to visit. This is good, I was there for this!


A glimpse of Bolivia
The firsts sights of Bolivia allow to realize that we are entering a pretty unique area of South America. Those glimpses can give you an idea of what you can feel in this country names after Simon Bolivar.

Like in the Peruvian villages, the native population of Bolivia kept the culture to wear traditional clothes. The women especially don´t hesitate to get dressed with those colorful dresses.
For example, between La Paz and Oruro, this woman wears the traditional clothes of the area, with its hat, dress and colorful bag. 

The markets are a commercial place, but also a very lively place for the Bolivian people. It is possible to find them everywhere, at any hour and of every size. The culture of the supermarket is still very far. Every need finds a solution there.
In the suburb of El Alto, near La Paz, the market is a very lively place.

Bolivia is indeed the poorest country of South America. A high part of the population is living in what we could call “favelas” in Brazil, or “townships” in South Africa. However, the criminality rate is not so high, even if of course it does exist like in any other part of the world.

A shelter in a poor area of La Paz

La Paz is a surprising city in the way it has been built. In most of the cities, the rich areas are often in the highest part of the city, to enjoy the panorama. Here, the poor areas take this place. The altitude is here very important, because you can breath less easily at 4000 meters. The highest suburb of La Paz is El Alto (“the high” in English).
A street of El Alto, near La Paz

Like in many third world countries, the pollution is a very important problem, coming often from a lack of education. How many times have I seen people throwing their trashes on the ground, without even considering a minute what would be the consequences of their behaving.  This comes from the banana leaf to the whole car!
In Potosi, what was remaining from a car has been let in a little field at two streets from the city center

Incredible landscape
Of course. There is a huge difference between the pollution of the cities and the amazement coming from the view of the landscapes.  Even the capital La Paz has been built in the middle of incredible 6000 meters (and more) mountains, like the Illimani of the Huayna Potosi.
The Huayna Potosi, seen from El Alto, next to La Paz

Also, the panorama of the capital La Paz is breathtaking. This city, as I said, has been build on a valley, which allows us to see the entire city from one of the highest point.
The panorama of La Paz

The country is very charming. I remember some desert places of the Altiplano that were absolutely unbelievable.  The immensity of the Salar or of the desert. Although I am making the apology of the nothingness, I have to admit that this kind of landscape makes me feeling free.
The arid
nothingness of the Altiplano

The picture is real. You know the concept but you maybe think that it was only coming from the Sahara desert. The mirage exists everywhere if the climatic conditions are gathered. I succeeded to take some picture of one of this incredible sight, like here in the South-west of Bolivia.
A mirage…

To get to those desert part of the country has been a difficulty. Most of the time, going from one place to another has been a challenge. So, what about hitchhiking?

Hitchhiking in Bolivia
Without any doubt, Bolivia has been the most difficult country of Latin America for hitchhiking.
By the way, the concept can look a little bit stupid if it is realized by a foreigner, knowing the extreme weak coast of the life and especially of the transportation.

Nevertheless, the economic side of my mean of transport has never been for me the first motivation. To meet the locals was for me what kept me traveling like this. Having an intercultural interaction was much more important for me than to save some bolivianos (currency used in Bolivia).

Hitchhiking in Bolivia was difficult because everything has a price in this country, or almost everything.  As this country situated between the Andes and the Amazon, surviving is like in most of the countries in the Third World, where we have to deal with the life as we can.

So, there are very few private vehicles. Most of the time, they are used as taxis, bus or other mean of transport. The trucks, for example, are using often their back to transport the locals for the half of the bus fare.

To keep having my project meaningful, I had to find the few private vehicles that wouldn´t make me a customer. It is also true that the chances to look for a social exchange with a driver would be very reduce if I was becoming the tool of a commercial relation. I would go from the possible friend to the guy from who we have to take the most of cash.

This is with a longer waiting time that I finally found my drivers.

Here I am truck-hitchhiking on the way to Oruro

The country is big, the distances are long and the roads are in a very bad state. In this country, we can find the most dangerous of the world, nicknamed “the Death road”. This road narrow enough for one vehicle is starting from the city of Coroico and is going along a cliff of more than 1000 meters high on several part of the journey. I didn´t have the opportunity to go there but I can more or less have an idea of how dangerous it can be.

Most of the roads of the country are not asphalted. They are mainly made of stones and sand. I could experience very closely those road, when I was sitting down on the back of a pick-up , like here near the village of Uyuni.

Eventually, the difficulty was to go between the local fauna.
On the way between Potosi and Uyuni, the lamas were in the middle of the road, which was for once asphalted by the way.

A though life in two examples
The life seems to be difficult in Bolivia and this, for several reasons. The economic situation of the country wouldn´t be exactly what we can call “healthy”.  Moreover, the work available is often very tough. It is physical and difficult. Contrary to most of the country “developed”, here the percentage of 80% of the people working in the services is still very far. The Bolivian office, you can imagine it in the mine of in the middle of the salar…

The mines of Potosi

In the book « Don Quichotte de la Mancha », it is written an expression saying “Vale un Potosi”. This expression means that Potosi was seen like an Eldorado, a never-ending well of wealth.
Potosi and its mines on the background

Potosi is a Bolivian city famous for its mines, especially of silver. Those one has been exploited from the time the Spanish arrive in the XVIth century. That has been the main source of colonial wealth for Spain at this moment. The colonial centers of cities like Sevilla can thank Potosi. Also, it is said that in more or less 500 years, 6 millions of Bolivians of Africans working in the mines of Potosi lost their lives…  Yes, we can´t have anything without making some sacrifices… Sculpted wall against millions of lives…

Today, the mines are still open. They are mainly extracting tin. I had the chance to visit by myself what was remaining from the mines and I have been impressed by the conditions of work of the people working in the mines. Most of them are working independently by the way.

I have been chocked by the state of the building that are exploiting the materials. The factories of treatment, the camps, they can almost be considered as ruins. I don´t know if every building is still used but most of them seem to be occupied, at least by the presence of some workers, when I went there.

One of the many camps of the mines of Potosi

Further, a factory for the treatment of the materials…

I could notice two different kinds of activities during this day to discover the life of the mine workers. The first one was to take the wagons out of the mines. Many railroads are going out of the many ways to get inside the mines. Those one allow the mine workers to take out the minerals with the little wagons.
Extracting the minerals with this little wagon

The second was realized inside the mines. I had to get in. There is absolutely no interdiction and security to get in the mines. I got in like if I was coming home. I even asked to the workers but it absolutely didn´t seem to bother them.

At the entrance of the mine, would I be allowed to keep going further?

Inside it gets quickly dark and we can smell different things that I couldn´t identify. I had the opportunity to meet a mine worker and to see what was his current activity. He was digging a wall, looking for some mineral. You can notice that he is chewing coca leaves. This is a very important custom in Bolivia. Chewing those leaves gives you some energy, like if you were drinking a big coffee.

Meeting a mine worker

Going inside the mines if of course very dangerous. The workers are never sure to not be a victim of explosion, rocks falling, gas smells. They are very superstitious and believers. I found a little temple to pray, inside the mine.



The life around the Salar of Uyuni
Today I won´t share with you pictures of me being silly in the middle of the Salar of Uyuni. And in any case, I lost the pictures!
No, I am more going to focus on the people I met around this famous and touristic salar.
12500 square kilometers, that is the equivalent of two French provinces. The only difference is that it is possible to see this whole space from any point of the salar. In front of me, I could watch the volcano Tunupa, which was at more than 200 kilometers.

The Salar (picture taken from internet)

This desert is completely white. Of course, it is made of salt. Extracting this one is an important activity for the Bolivian workers.
Once again, I went through the travel agencies by not choosing one and I started to hitchhike. By chance, I stopped a truck that was going to the construction field of a factory that will extract lithium in the future.  The lithium is this thing that we are using to make the phone batteries for example. The ground of the Salar of Uyuni seems to be very rich of this mineral. Many factories start to appear there and there. Maybe a future Potosi?

From there, I did a walk of 70 kilometers for 3 days through some villages around the Salar of Uyuni. Here also, the life is though.

The villages seem like ghost towns for most of them. There is very few distractions and the life is though.
The villages look like ghost towns
for most of them, like here in Julaca

In the village of Rio Grande, this kid is distracted by THE daily passage of the freight train

The villages seem to be abandoned, like all the objects on the floor. The vehicles are not an exception here.

A piece of truck, lost in the middle of the village…

… While a lama (or an alpaga) is crossing the square, followed by his little one

So what are doing the Bolivians locals in this post-apocalyptical atmosphere?
There isn´t many things to do. The men, often, are going to the salar to get some salt. They are burning themselves, spending the days under the sun, which is reflecting on the salar.

Their wife, generally, are taking care of the cattle of sheep of lamas. In this desert, I am even wondering from what they can feed themselves.
A Bolivian woman, keep a cattle of sheep

The life around the salar is also though. This half-salted desert is a pretty difficult environment. Although the view is bringing you to the infinite, the possibility for surviving aren´t.

The desert around the Salar of Uyuni

Finally, Bolivia has been another interesting country. I learned again the lesson that I already had in many other country by the past:  we aren´t born with an equality of chances.
Here the Bolivians are answering to the difficulties of the life by believing even more in their Heritage. Evo Morales, one of the first indigenous president of this world, is giving back their support by having orientated his government towards socialistic ideas that are protecting the less advantaged of the Bolivian people.

Like in many African countries where I have been in this journey, I felt like a piece that doesn´t belong to the system that I don´t fully understand. To have a conversation with a local has been a challenge in itself. My curiosity helped me to have some answers, but also a lot a frustration, because I always want to know more and the conversations were rarely going as far as I wished.
On which concerns the nature lovers, Bolivia is a wonderful country, don´t doubt about it. This is surely, one of the most incredible that I have visited so far.

Me, I am keeping going on my way to the south. I am now in Chile, that I will have to cross from north to south… Witch means around 4300 kilometers to hitchhike!

See you very soon in Chile


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